Life and Culture
By Ven. Dr. K. Sri Dhammanada - From the book "What Buddhist Believe"
The Following Sections are Covered in this Document
Contents Section
Traditions, Customs and Festivals 1
- Rites and Rituals 1.1
- Festivals 1.2
Status of Women in Buddhism 2
Buddhism and Politics 3

Buddhism is tolerant about traditions and customs provided they are not harmful to the welfare of others.

THE Buddha advised us not to believe in anything simply because it is our tradition or custom. However, we are not advised to suddenly do away with all traditions. ‘ You must try to experiment with them and put them thoroughly to test. If they are reasonable and conducive both to your happiness and to the welfare of others, only then should you accept and practise these traditions and customs.' (KALAMA SUTTA) This is certainly one of the most liberal declarations ever made by any religious teacher. This tolerance of others' traditions and customs is not known to some other religionists. These religionists usually advise their new converts to give up all their traditions, customs and culture without considering whether they are good or bad. While preaching the Dharma, Buddhist missionaries have never advised the people to give up their traditions as long as they are reasonable. But the customs and traditions must be within the framework of religious principles. In other words, one should not violate the universal religious precepts in order to follow one's traditions. If people are very keen to follow their own traditions which have no religious value at all, they can do so provided that they do not practise these traditions in the name of religion. Even then, such practices must be harmless to oneself and to all other living creatures.

Rites and Rituals

These are included within customs and traditions. The Rites and Rituals are an ornamentation or a decoration to beautify a religion in order to attract the public. They provide psychological help to some people. But one can practise religion without any rites and rituals. Certain rites and rituals that people consider as the most important aspect of their religion for their salvation are not considered as such in Buddhism. According to the Buddha, one should not cling to such practices for one's spiritual development or mental purity.


Genuine and sincere Buddhists do not observe Buddhist festivals by enjoying themselves under the influence of liquor and merry­making or holding feasts following the slaughtering of animals. True Buddhists observe festival days in an entirely different manner. On the particular festival day, they devote their time to abstaining from all evil. They practise charity and help others to relieve themselves from their suffering. They entertain friends and relatives in a dignified way.

The festivals that have been incorporated into religion sometimes could pollute the purity of a religion. On the other hand a religion without festivals can become very dull and lifeless to many people. Usually children and youths come to appreciate religion through religious festivals. To them the attraction of a religion is based on its festivals. On the other hand, to a meditator or a spiritually mature person, festivals can become a hindrance to true practice.

Of course, some people may not be satisfied with religious observances only during a festival. They prefer year-round merry­making and will settle for any excuse to have a “good time”. Rites and rituals, ceremonies, processions and festivals are organised to quench that thirst for emotional satisfaction through religion. No one can say that such practices are wrong, but devotees have to organise those ceremonies in a cultured manner, without causing a nuisance to others. Especially in a multi-religious society, they have to organize festivals in such a way that they do not become a mockery in the eyes of the public.

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A female child may even prove to be a better offspring than a male.

WOMEN'S position in Buddhism is unique. The Buddha gave women full freedom to participate in a religious life. The Buddha was the first religious Teacher who gave this religious freedom to women. Before the Buddha, women's duties had been restricted to the kitchen; women were not even allowed to enter any place of worship or to recite any religious scripture. During the Buddha's time in India , women's position in society was very low. The Buddha was criticized by the prevailing establishment when He gave this freedom to women. His move to allow women to enter the Holy Order was extremely radical for the times. Yet the Buddha allowed women to prove themselves and to show that they too had the capacity like men to attain the highest position in the religious way of life by attaining Arahantahood. Every woman in the world must be grateful to the Buddha for showing them the real religious way of living and for giving such freedom to them for the first time in world history.

A good illustration of the prevailing attitude towards women during the Buddha's time is found in these words of Mara: ‘No woman, with the two-finger wisdom (narrow) which is hers, could ever hope to reach those heights which are attained only by the sages.' The nun ( bhikkhuni ) to whom Mara addressed these words, gave the following reply: ‘When one's mind is well concentrated and wisdom never fails, does the fact of being a woman make any difference?'

The Buddha has confirmed that man is not always the only wise one; woman is also wise. King Kosala was very disappointed when he heard that his Queen had given birth to a baby girl. He had expected a boy. Undoubtedly, the Buddha was vehement in contradicting such attitudes. To console the sad King, the Buddha said:

‘A female child, O Lord of men, may prove to be even a better offspring than a male. For she may grow up wise and virtuous, her husband's mother reverencing a true wife. The boy that she may bear may do great deeds, a rule great realms. Yes, such a son of noble wife becomes his country's guide.'


Nowadays many religionists like to claim that their religions give women equal rights. We only have to look at the world around us today to see the position of women in many societies. It seems that they have no property rights, are discriminated against in various fields and generally suffer abuse in many subtle forms.

Even in western countries, women like the Suffragettes had to fight very hard for their rights. According to Buddhism, it is not justifiable to regard women as inferior. The Buddha Himself was born as a woman on several occasions during His previous births in Samsara and even as a woman He developed the noble qualities and wisdom at that time until He gained Enlightenment or Buddhahood.*

*For a deeper discussion on this subject, read the booklet STATUS OF WOMEN IN BUDDHISM by the same author.

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The Buddha had gone beyond all worldly affairs, but still gave advice on good government.

THE Buddha came from the warrior caste and was naturally brought into association with kings, princes and ministers. Despite His origin and association, He never resorted to the influence of political power to introduce His teaching, nor allowed His Teaching to be misused for gaining political power. But today, many politicians try to drag the Buddha's name into politics by introducing Him as a communist, capitalist, or even an imperialist. They have forgotten that the new political philosophy as we know it really developed in the West long after the Buddha's time. Those who try to make use of the good name of the Buddha for their own personal advantage must remember that the Buddha was the Supremely Enlightened One who had gone beyond all worldly concerns.

There is an inherent problem of trying to intermingle religion with politics. The basis of religion is morality, purity, faith and wisdom while that for politics is power. In the course of history, religion has often been used to give legitimacy to those in power and their exercise of that power.

When religion is used to pander to political whims, it has to forego its high moral ideals and become debased by worldly political demands. It is in these circumstances that religion was used to justify wars and conquests, persecutions, atrocities, rebellions, destruction of works of art and culture.

The Buddha Dharma is not directed at the creation of new political institutions and establishing political arrangements. Basically, it seeks to approach the problems of society by reforming the individuals constituting that society and by suggesting some general principles through which the society can be guided towards greater humanism, improved welfare of its members, and more equitable sharing of resources.

There is a limit to the extent to which a political system can safeguard the happiness and prosperity of its people. No political system, regardless of how ideal it may appear to be, can bring about peace and happiness as long as the people in the system are dominated by greed, hatred and delusion. In addition, no matter what political system is adopted, there are certain universal factors which the members of that society will have to experience: the effects of good and bad karma, the lack of real satisfaction or everlasting happiness in the world characterised by dukkha (unsatis­factoriness), anicca (impermanence), and anatta (unsubstantiality/ egolessness).

Although a good and just political system which guarantees basic human rights and which contains checks and balances to the use of power is an important condition for a happy life in society, people should not fritter away their time by endlessly searching for the ultimate political system where men can be completely free, because complete freedom cannot be found in any system but only in minds which are free. To be free, people will have to look within their own minds and work towards freeing themselves from the chains of ignorance and craving. Freedom in the truest sense is only possible when a person uses the Dharma to develop character through good speech and action and to train the mind so as to expand the mental potential and achieve the ultimate aim of enlightenment.

While recognising the usefulness of separating religion from politics and the limitations of political systems in bringing about peace and happiness, there are several aspects of the Buddha's teaching which have close correspondence to the political arrangements of the present day. Firstly, the Buddha spoke about the equality of all human beings long before Abraham Lincoln and taught that classes and castes are artificial barriers erected by society. According to the AGGANNA SUTRA , the only classification of human beings, according to the Buddha, is based on the quality of their moral conduct. Secondly, the Buddha encouraged the spirit of social co-operation and active participation in society. This spirit is actively promoted in the political process of modern societies. Thirdly, since no one was appointed as the Buddha's successor, the members of the Order were to be guided by the Dharma and Vinaya, or the Righteous Rule of Law. Until today every member of the Sangha agrees to abide by the Rule of Law which governs and guides his conduct.

Fourthly, the Buddha encouraged the spirit of consultation and the democratic process. This is shown within the community of the Order in which all members have the right to decide on matters of general concern. When a serious question arose demanding attention, the issues were put before the monks and discussed in a manner similar to the democratic parliamentary system used today.

This self-governing procedure may come as a surprise to many to learn that in the assemblies of Buddhists in India 2,500 years and more ago are to be found the rudiments of the parliamentary practice of the present day. A special officer similar to ‘Mr. Speaker' was appointed to preserve the dignity of the assembly. A second officer, who played a role similar to the Parliamentary Chief Whip, was also appointed to see if the quorum was secured. Matters were put forward in the form of a motion which was open to discussion. In some cases it was done once, in others three times, thus anticipating the practice of Parliament in requiring that a bill be read a third time before it becomes law. If the discussion showed a difference of opinion, it was to be settled by the vote of the majority through balloting.

The Buddhist approach to political power is the moralization and the responsible use of public power. The Buddha preached non­violence and peace as a universal message. He did not approve of violence or the destruction of life, and declared that there is no such thing as a ‘just' war. He taught: ‘The victor breeds hatred, the defeated lives in misery. He who renounces both victory and defeat is happy and peaceful.' Not only did the Buddha teach non-violence and peace, He was perhaps the first and only religious teacher who went to the battlefield personally to prevent the outbreak of a war. He diffused tension between the Sakyas and the Koliyas who were about to wage war over distribution rights of the waters of Rohini. He also dissuaded King Ajatasattu from attacking the Kingdom of the Vajjis.

The Buddha discussed the importance and the prerequisites of a good government. He showed how the country could become corrupt, degenerate and unhappy when the head of the government becomes corrupt and unjust. He spoke against corruption and how a government should act based on humanitarian principles.

The Buddha once said:

‘When the ruler of a country is just and good, the ministers become just and good, when the ministers are just and good, the higher officials become just and good, when the higher officials are just and good, the rank and file become just and good, when the rank and file become just and good, the people become just and good. ‘


In the CAKKAVATTI SIHANADA SUTTA , the Buddha said that im­morality and crime, such as theft, falsehood, violence, hatred, cruelty, could arise from poverty. Kings and governments may try to suppress crime through punishment, but it is futile to eradicate crimes through force.

In the KUTADANTA SUTTA , the Buddha suggested economic development instead of force to reduce crime. The government should use the country's resources to improve the economic conditions of the country. It could embark on agricultural and rural development, provide financial support to those who undertake an enterprise and business, provide adequate wages for workers to maintain a decent life with human dignity.

In the JATAKA stories, the Buddha gave 10 rules for Good Government, known as Dasa Raja Dharma . These ten rules can be applied even today by any government which wishes to rule the country peacefully. According to these rules a ruler must:

be liberal and avoid selfishness,
maintain a high moral character,
be prepared to sacrifice his own pleasure for the well being of the subjects,
be honest and maintain absolute integrity,
be kind and gentle,
lead a simple life for the subjects to emulate,
be free from hatred of any kind,
exercise non violence,
practise patience, and
respect public opinion to promote peace and harmony.

Regarding the behaviour of rulers, He further advised:

A good ruler should act impartially and should not be biased and discriminate between one particular group of subjects against another.
A good ruler should not harbour any form of hatred against any of his subjects.
A good ruler should show no fear whatsoever in the enforcement of the law, if it is justifiable.
A good ruler must possess a clear understanding of the law to be enforced. It should not be enforced just because the ruler has the authority to enforce the law. It must be done in a reasonable manner and with common sense.

In the MILINDA PANHA , it is stated: ‘If a man, who is unfit, incompetent, immoral, improper, unable and unworthy of kingship, has enthroned himself a king or a ruler with great authority, he is subject to a variety of punishment by the people, because, being unfit and unworthy, he has placed himself unrighteously in the seat of sovereignty. The ruler, like others who violate and transgress moral codes and basic rules of all social laws of mankind, is equally subject to punishment; and moreover, to be censured is the ruler who conducts himself as a robber of the public.' In a Jataka story, it is mentioned that a ruler who punishes innocent people and does not punish the culprit is not suitable to rule a country.

The king always improves himself and carefully examines his own conduct in deeds, words and thoughts, trying to discover and listen to public opinion as to whether or not he had been guilty of any faults and mistakes in ruling the kingdom. If it is found that he rules unrighteously, the public will complain that they are ruined by the wicked ruler with unjust treatment, punishment, taxation, or other oppressions including corruption of any kind, and they will react against him in one way or another. On the contrary, if he rules righteously they will bless him: ‘Long live His Majesty.' (MAJJHIMA NIKAYA)

We can note in passing why the Buddha's Teaching is called the Eternal Dharma or Truth. From the points mentioned above we can see that the Teachings are universal and can be applied to all human societies no matter how separated they are in time and space.

The Buddha's emphasis on the moral duty of a ruler to use public power to improve the welfare of the people inspired Emperor Asoka in the Third Century B.C. to do likewise. Emperor Asoka, a sparkling example of this principle, resolved to live according to the Dharma and to serve his subjects and all humanity. He declared his non-aggressive intentions to his neighbours, assuring them of his goodwill and sending envoys to distant kings bearing his message of peace and non-aggression. He promoted the energetic practice of the socio-moral virtues of honesty, truthfulness, compassion, benevolence, non-violence, considerate behaviour towards all, non-extravagance, non-acquisitiveness, and non-injury to animals. He encouraged religious freedom and mutual respect for other people's beliefs. He went on periodic tours preaching the Dharma to the rural people. He undertook works of public utility, such as founding of hospitals for men and animals, supplying of medicine, planting of roadside trees and groves, digging of wells, and construction of watering sheds and rest houses. He expressly forbade cruelty to animals.

Sometimes the Buddha is described as a social reformer although this was not His primary concern. Among other things, He con­demned the caste system, recognised the equality of people, spoke on the need to improve socio-economic conditions, recognised the importance of a more equitable distribution of wealth among the rich and the poor, raised the status of women, recommended the incorporation of humanism in government and administration, and taught that a society should not be run by greed but with consideration and compassion for the people. Despite all these, His contribution to mankind is much greater because He took off at a point which no other social reformer before or ever since had reached, that is, by going to the deepest roots of human ill which are found in the human mind. It is only in the human mind that true reform can be effected. Reforms imposed by force upon the external world have a very short life because they have no roots. But those reforms which spring as a result of the transformation of man's inner consciousness remain rooted. While their branches spread outwards, they draw their nourishment from an unfailing source—the subconscious imperatives of the life-stream itself. So reforms come about when men's minds have prepared the way for them, and they live as long as men revitalise them out of their own love of truth, justice and their fellow men. The Buddhist attitude is that social reform can be achieved, not by harshness and punishment, but through education and compassion.

The doctrine preached by the Buddha is not one based on ‘Political Philosophy'. Nor is it a doctrine that encourages people to incline towards worldly interests. It sets out a way to attain Nirvana. In other words, its ultimate aim is to put an end to craving ( tanha ) that keeps men in bondage to this world. Everything else including social reformation, is of a secondary concern. A stanza from the Dhammapada best summarises this statement: ‘The path that leads to worldly gain is one, and the path that leads to Nirvana (by leading a religious life) is another'. However, this does not mean that Buddhists cannot or should not get involved in the political process, which is a social reality. The entire Teaching can be broadly divided into two categories: mundane and supramundane. The first refers to our material concerns pertaining to this human existence; the second concerns our spiritual aspirations which transcend worldly needs. The Buddha has said that living comfortable, secure and contented lives are a necessary prerequisite to prepare the mind to seek spiritual fulfillment.

The lives of the members of a society are shaped by laws and regulations, economic arrangements allowed within a country and institutional arrangements, which are influenced by the political situation of that society. Nevertheless, if Buddhists wish to be involved in politics, they should not misuse religion to gain political powers, nor is it advisable for those who have renounced the worldly life in order to lead a pure, religious life to be actively involved in politics.

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Buddhist Teachings Life and Culture